One of the defining features of the world today is a high level of obesity among children worldwide: this is not only in countries such as the UK, where nearly a third of children aged 2-15 are overweight or obese, but also in the rest of the world, where obesity is rising rapidly including in countries where malnutrition is also found. Obesity brings risks to health and mental health throughout childhood and through the rest of life.
The reasons for this rapid rise in obesity are considered to be environmental: living and working conditions that promote stress and job insecurity and don’t support home food preparation; food production, processing, pricing and subsidy systems; and urban planning and deprivation that doesn’t support physical activity or healthy food supply. In addition to all these – and interacting with them – is the promotion (marketing and advertising) of unhealthy foods in the media and elsewhere, which has been shown to increase children’s eating.
From their earliest days, children recognise more unhealthy than healthy food brand logos, knowledge that increases rapidly from the age of 3 years. Indeed, this knowledge increases earlier than children’s growth in understanding of which foods are not healthy to eat – suggesting that advertisers and marketers are communicating with children about food effectively in the earliest years of life. Later, in their teens, young people using social media are exposed almost exclusively to advertising for unhealthy foods, using immersive, entertaining, and emotionally engaging techniques that link in their friends and spread marketing messages through their networks.
Although countries such as the UK limit the advertising of unhealthy foods and soft drinks directed at children in television, this hasn’t been effective. Audits have shown that children’s exposure to such advertising has actually increased, as children and young people also view a lot of programmes at times when many adults watch television – which isn’t subject to regulation. And advertising in digital media in the UK is guided by rules that are unlikely to capture most of the exposure to unhealthy marketing that young people view in social media. Elsewhere in the world, regulation of unhealthy food promotion in digital media is almost completely absent. In a world of overweight and obesity, the opportunity this presents for brands to build relationships with children and promote unhealthy foods is a concern.
An ongoing conversation is taking place about the kind of relationship young people have with digital media, and calls have been made for an international regime to address this by balancing children’s protection and participation online. Part of this will be limiting the ability for those selling unhealthy items to cultivate relationships with children online. As digital media become ever more part of our lives, at all ages, it is essential we find ways to protect children and young people’s right to health while at the same time protecting their right to use these media to avail of information and engage in civic life.